I write and think a lot about "outsider artists." I ran across an essay about Ai Weiwei yesterday and I have been thinking about his status both as an artist and activist, and how his art/activism created for him an identity that he now can literally not escape. Weiwei is an "outsider artist," even though he is pedigreed and championed, and is shown all over the world. Weiwei has become one of China's most visible "disappeareds." He was detained April 3 by Chinese officials, and has not been heard from since.
His art is humorous, sneaky, and Duchampian. The political has given Weiwei a reason to be pissed and allows his work a vicious, smart-assed strength and validity, but he uses an aesthetic approach to both question authority and poke fun at himself as an Artist. (Witness the perfect "Coca Cola 'Han Dynsasty'" urn above, as well as the straightforward beauty of giving the finger to the White House, part of a series of photographs that include giving the finger to the Eiffel Tower and Tiananmen Square, among other landmarks.) His work reminds me of Jeff Koons if Jeff Koons gave a shit.
Weiwei returned to China in 1993 after going to art school in the US. In his own country he is a prisoner for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. His art won't let it be. And even though he is well-known and one of China's most celebrated artists, he is an outcast.
"Outsider art" in this case has something to do with what artists are expected to do and be. Weiwei's bravery, I'm sure, has been duly noted, but what I find fascinating is his need to do the art he does in a country that would rather silence him than tolerate him. This need seems to come from a very pure place. Maybe that's a definition of "outsider art" I can deal with: art that needs to come from a pure place.